The hackneyed phrases being used by Brexiteers highlights the emptiness at the heart of their project
In my first job as a journalist my news editor, a Belfast man with a wicked sense of humour, instructed me to ‘avoid clichés like the plague’. It was a test. If the trainee reporter laughed at this subverted cliché, he or she might be up to the job. Failing to get the joke was a black mark.
‘Clichéd words mean clichéd ideas,’ the news editor would say, striking out a bit of journalese or a hackneyed phrase. ‘It’s a sign you have stopped thinking.’
That old piece of wisdom struck me on reading Boris Johnson’s attack on Theresa May in the Daily Telegraph this week. It leaves no cliché unturned. Admittedly what Johnson lacks in clear thinking he makes up for in shameless ambition – mostly his ambition to unseat May and become prime minister – but the clichés give it away.
After more than two years of political manoeuvring this leading Brexit Bunch deep-thinker still lacks any coherent thoughts about what a real Brexit would look like or how to achieve it.
His article ends with the most extraordinary Brexit idea of all – one which, to my surprise, I can heartily endorse, although perhaps not exactly as he would wish. We’ll get to that in a moment.
But first let’s take a walk through the Brexit cliché swamp.
Johnson’s great classical hero was Pericles. Emulating Periclean oratory for our more populist times, Johnson tells us ‘ding ding! seconds out!’ for the ‘international slug fest’ known as Brexit negotiations. His Conservative colleagues are ‘shrugging their shoulders’ and ‘beating their chests’ and he decries ‘trusting souls’ who think May’s version of Brexit is going to be a success. But ‘they have been rumbled’.
The cliché-strewn wreckage continues with ‘cherry picking’ and ‘diddly squat’ and ‘we have gone to battle’ with ‘the white flag flying’, and – this is Johnson’s real genius – somehow he manages to invent new phrases which themselves sound as if they have been clichés for decades.
He tells us we risk ‘the UK lying flat on the canvas with 12 stars circling symbolically over our semi-conscious head’. (The Daily Telegraph pay handsomely for stuff like this.)
Johnson’s laziness has well reported and he seems to thing he can get by on charm alone. This ineducable charm resulted, among other things, in Johnson as mayor of London purchasing German water cannon for riot control, at a cost of £320,000. The then home secretary Theresa May banned their use and they have been up for sale ever since. But for some unaccountable reason no one would buy an unused water cannon from Boris Johnson.
We have had more than two years of such ill-informed arrogance and interminable clichés since the Brexit vote. We were, in those original clichés, supposed to ‘have our cake and eat it’, because ‘Brexit means Brexit’. And now? Well, the practical problems remain unsolved but at least the clichés have changed. Those of us who believe the British people should have the final say on any deal in a People’s Vote are now repeatedly told that ‘we’ voted for Brexit in 2016 and now we ‘just have to GET ON WITH IT’.
It is worth examining this new cliché in detail.
What exactly is the ‘it’ that we have to ‘get on with’? Is ‘it’ the Nigel Farage/UKIP scorched earth ‘it’ of no-deal Brexit, ‘just walk away’, like ‘leaving a golf club?’ Or perhaps the ‘it’ we have to get on with is Theresa May’s Chequers ‘it’, the deal cobbled together by the prime minister which failed to unite her own Cabinet and has absolutely no chance of uniting either her party or the country.
As Johnson himself puts it, ‘Chequers means disaster’. So what, you may ask, is Johnson’s own version of ‘it’ – the Brexit deal that we should be getting on with? Over the past two years any positive suggestions from Johnson have been so encumbered by Johnsonian waffle that it is impossible to perceive what that ‘it’ might be.
Perhaps the most ludicrous Brexit cliché now is the idea that the ‘people have spoken’, and therefore forever afterwards we must keep our mouths shut. This is not the way democracy in Britain works. And shutting up is not an option. Since 2016, not surprisingly, many people have changed their minds about many things.
In 2015 the people of Britain gave David Cameron and the Conservative party a clear mandate to govern and to give us a Brexit vote. But Theresa May lost that clear mandate in 2017 when she unwisely called an unwanted election in which she lost seats, along with her credibility.
May cannot now govern comfortably without support from outside her own party.
She has no popular mandate for her Chequers Brexit negotiating position. Since the British people clearly changed their minds about the Conservative government between 2015 and 2017, the idea that we cannot change our minds about Brexit between 2016 and 2019 is both undemocratic and, frankly, ludicrous.
One other newly minted cliché of the Brexit Bunch, struggling to find any real argument, is to claim that a People’s Vote would in some way prove ‘divisive’. Really? Compared to what? An enforced unpopular Brexit? A no-deal? The divisions within the government and the Conservative party have already profoundly undermined unity in our country and our image abroad.
It cannot be emphasised too vigorously that May cannot be strong in Europe while weak at Westminster. And do the Brexit Bunch truly not understand how divisive Brexit already is in Scotland or Northern Ireland? A People’s Vote is not just one way of healing such divisions, given the rifts in Labour as well as the Conservatives, a People’s Vote may be the only way. Refusing to contemplate such an exercise in democracy will further dis-unite our supposedly United Kingdom.
Which brings us back to the Pericles of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson, regarded by some as the brains of the Brexit Bunch, the one most likely to be prime minister. He is also the man who promised that Brexit would be a ‘Titanic success’, a comment which would have provoked a belly laugh from my old news editor in Belfast where the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic was constructed.
In his most recent article the hitherto unsinkable Johnson offers some thoughts about an Irish border – a border he once compared to the one between Westminster and Islington. Johnson suggests, as some English politicians have for centuries, that what happens in Ireland need not be a problem.
I will happily meet Johnson in Crossmaglen or Derry to point out that his comparisons with Islington may not be entirely accurate.
But Northern Ireland aside, let us conclude with a positive note of agreement. Stripped of the lazy clichés, denuded of pontifications about Ireland and its border, Johnson in the last paragraph of his Telegraph article finally offers us a solution which, if implemented, might just heal the divisions in our country and cause limited damage.
Johnson’s one positive contribution to the Brexit debate is to call for ‘a big and generous Free Trade Deal with intimate partnerships on foreign policy, justice and all the rest’.
And here is the good news. Such a deal is available. The United Kingdom already has it. It is called membership of the European Union.
Gavin Esler is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster and chancellor of the University of Kent; he worked for the BBC for around 20 years, including as a presenter on Newsnight